Oscar Lewis is remembered in anthropological circles for three things – (1) his ethnographic restudy of a community in Mexico which came to quite different conclusions than an earlier study of the same community by Robert Redfield, (2) the engaging quality of his ethnographic writing in general, whether he was writing of rural or urban Mexico, Puerto Ricans in San Juan or New York, or communities in India (Lewis is probably the only anthropologist to have an ethnography adapted into a Hollywood movie – The Children of Sanchez, starring Anthony Quinn), and (3) his most important theoretical contribution to anthropology and social science, the concept of the “Culture of Poverty.”
Today, the idea of the culture of poverty tends to be looked at with distrust at best. The use of the concept often brings charges of “blaming the victim.” This is largely the result of (I think well intentioned) misapplications of the concept in association with the U.S. federal government’s “War on Poverty” in the mid to late 1960s. This is most famously the case with the Moynihan Report, associated with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (otherwise a politician with solid liberal credentials – the problem with the report is not the senator’s intentions, or even necessarily the empirical facts reported in it, so much as a misapplication of Lewis’ concept and a problem with the interpretation of the facts). The key problem with the Moynihan Report was that it confused the symptoms of poverty with its causes. In doing so, it did “blame the victim” by positing subcultural patterns empirically associated with persistent poverty as the causes of poverty (most problematically with a preoccupation with matrifocal family dynamics among poor black Americans), rather than seeing these patterns as effects of living in poverty and/or as short term coping mechanisms for living in poverty in certain contexts. (In some ways, it might have been better had it been, say, the Strom Thurmond Report – that at least would have made it easier for generally liberal scholars to reject the interpretations and conclusions of the report without regarding the concept it used as tainted.).
Lewis’ concept didn’t “blame the victim.” Instead, it involved recognizing that poverty doesn’t entail simply not having enough money, but also often entails the necessity for adaptive strategies for dealing with persistent poverty, which in turn create subcultural differences in patterns of living and perspectives and worldview. Such subcultural strategies and practices often do have the unfortunate effect of contributing to the reproduction of poverty (and so must be addressed as part of any overall strategy for dealing with poverty – with this the key reason to reassess Lewis’ concept), but they are not the ultimate cause of poverty, and addressing these symptoms of poverty alone will do little to affect endemic poverty.
Lewis first mentioned the culture of poverty in Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (1959), though with more sustained discussion in The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (1961). The book overall presents the personal narratives of members of the Sanchez family in their own words, but the introduction discusses the general context of their narratives and lives, and introduces the notion of the culture of poverty. In a few paragraphs in The Children of Sanchez, and in a longer discussion in La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty – San Juan and New York (1965), Lewis lays out some of the features the culture of poverty (recognizing also that exact details will change from context to context).
Some of the main things typically occurring as part of the culture of poverty include patterns to cope with the economic realities of poverty, as well as patterns to cope with the economic, social, physical, and emotional and other psychological stresses of extreme and persistent poverty.
Some of these follow straightforwardly from the fact of not having sufficient resources. If you don’t have much money, you can only buy foodstuffs and other important economic goods in small quantities, which means you have to buy them often, which in turn means both that you can’t take advantage of buying in larger quantity at lower per unit prices (which further means that a basic economic fact of poverty requires the poor to pay more for basic goods than those better off – which means that even the basic economic facts of poverty tend to reinforce poverty) and that much time and mental and physical energy is persistently focused towards meeting basic needs. This tends to inhibit the ability of the poor to plan for the future in any long term way, or even to develop the mental skills for long term planning, typically leading to a highly present-time orientation.
Persistent poverty is also highly stressful, and many of the particular examples cited by Lewis are examples of people attempting to cope with the stresses of poverty – or the consequences of those attempts to cope. These can include again the daily attempt to get by (requiring investment of much mental and physical energy) and a generally present or short term time focus, but also low education levels, frequent pawning of personal goods and/or turning to local money lenders at high interest rates (i.e. “loan sharks”), poor housing conditions and crowding and the stresses accompanying them, “the absence of childhood as a specially prolonged and protected stage in the life cycle” (La Vida, p. xlvii), a tendency toward mother-centered families and/or free unions, high rates of alcoholism or other substance use, lack of privacy, intrafamilial competition for limited goods and affection, etc.
Finally, Lewis also stresses that people living in a culture of poverty have quite low participation rates in national life, e.g. participation in politics, use of department stores, museums, art galleries or other institutions of high or national culture, or even systematic use of social services. Even within the impoverished community, most interaction is integrated mainly at the familial level, with community wide organization taking as often as not unstable and even violent form, with things like street gangs. Lewis says (La Vida, p. xlvii): “Most primitive peoples have achieved a higher level of socio-cultural organization than our modern urban slum dwellers.”
One important result of all of the patterns described by Lewis is a general lack of sense of integration or belonging to something larger than the self and immediate family, a lack of a sense of self-fulfillment, and a lack of a sense of hope or a sense that things can or are likely to get better.
This is an ugly picture of life in persistent poverty, but then poverty is in fact an ugly thing. I’d like to emphasize two things about Lewis’ delineation of the particular traits of the culture of poverty: (1) This part of Lewis’ discussion involves empirical description. The characteristics he describes are either actually present or not in a particular impoverished setting. Over the years, I’ve heard a number of anthropological colleagues over the years criticize Lewis’ writings for over-generalizing on the basis of information from a specific community, or sometimes even from a single family. That may be (I think it is, insofar as there is an unsubstantiated insinuation of typicality for, say, the Sanchez family), but that doesn’t invalidate the theoretical concept as much as call for careful attention to the specific details of subcultural patterns associated with any particular example of a culture of poverty. (2) The fact that Lewis paints an ugly picture does not in any way mean that he is blaming the poor for their condition. Instead, in La Vida, he carefully lays out the sorts of circumstances in which a culture of poverty is likely to develop as a set of mechanisms to cope with conditions, which is to say he lays out the conditions in which some are victimized by poverty. He also presents examples of contexts of poverty where the negative patterns of a culture of poverty are much less likely to develop.
Lewis writes (La Vida, pp. xliii – xliv): “The culture of poverty can come into being in a variety of historical contexts. However, it tends to grow and flourish in societies with the following set of conditions: (1) a cash economy, wage labor and production for profit; (2) a persistently high rate of unemployment and underemployment for unskilled labor; (3) low wages; (4) the failure to provide social, political and economic organization, either on a voluntary basis or by government imposition, for the low-income population; (5) the existence of a bilateral kinship system rather than a unilateral one; and finally, (6) the existence of a set of values in the dominant class which stresses the accumulation of wealth and property, the possibility of upward mobility and thrift, and explains low economic status as the result of personal inadequacy or inferiority.” Ironically, the Moynihan Report used a variation on this last theme, by positing a sort of cultural inadequacy or inferiority as the cause of persistent poverty.
For Lewis, a culture of poverty develops when persistent poverty exists and when the poor are thrown back upon their own resources, because little else is done to help them – and in fact they’re liable to be blamed for their own condition, but where their resources are typically insufficient to escape poverty. Instead, individuals, each acting as logically and rationally as people in any other sociocultural context, in their efforts to adapt to an extreme situation, end up engaging in patterns of practice which can easily reinforce themselves and can be often psychologically and socially dysfunctional, but where such patterns, which constitute a subculture of poverty, are the product rather than the cause of persistent impoverishment (even though once established, such patterns do contribute to the reproduction of poverty – but even this caveat should not be taken to imply blame to the practitioners of these patterns, for the culture of poverty does provide an adaptive strategy for some conditions, albeit also a dysfunctional one).